Heathrow bosses knew an inch of snow would cripple airport
Heathrow Airport closed its runways, stranding hundreds of thousands of passengers, because its "winter resilience" contingency plan was only designed to keep the airport fully operational if less than an inch of snow fell.
* Ruled out the Civil Aviation Authority's offer to relax its rules on runway clearance which would have allowed planes to take off and land without clearing all the snow.
* Ordered in emergency supplies of runway de-icer because it had insufficient stocks to clear both runways.
Last week, David Cameron, said he was "frustrated" that it had taken "so long for the situation to improve" and even offered servicemen to help clear the snow.
But Heathrow's limited "plan" to deal with snow should not have been a surprise to the Government, as it was drawn up under orders from the Department of Transport and Philip Hammond, its Conservative Secretary of State.
The airport agreed the plan following the Government's "Winter Resilience Review" in July which was set up after last winter's weather chaos. Heathrow said it was "sourcing additional snow clearing vehicles; additional de-icer providers for greater certainty of supply (and) had increased its storage capacity for de-icing products".
Heathrow's "Snow Plan" came into force on Nov 1. It warns: "Extended runway sweeping and ploughing required with extended restricted runway operations and possible full closure". It adds: "In the event of significant snowfall … aircraft operations my be suspended indefinitely."
The report makes it clear that Heathrow relies on 17 vehicles to keep its runways and taxiways clear of snow and ice. The airport has just 10 "Sicard" snow sweepers, three airfield de-icers and four airfield apron de-icers.
The details in the report contradict a statement released in November that claimed there were "60 vehicles" to keep "the runways clear". In fact, most of the equipment is designed to clear snow from aircraft parking stands, passenger walkways and airside roads.
Despite the Government ordering Heathrow to update its snow plan last summer it showed few changes from the previous year's version. Crucially the airport had not added to it's runway clearing equipment.
According to the Snow Plan, the "immediate aim is to keep the runway(s), associated exits and entry points for the runway(s) in use". It adds "runway(s) will be cleared first".
Last week Heathrow managers abandoned this aspect of the plan, deciding to leave the southern runway uncleared and closed to flights for almost a week.
This decision ended the hopes of at least half the passengers stranded at the airport hoping to take off for their holidays. The reason was that the airport had no means to ensure the runways would stay open if more than an inch of snow fell. The internal report makes clear the size of the task facing the airport in clearing the two centimetre (0.8 inches) snowfall it had planned for. It says: "Dry snow can have a weight of 300kg per cubic metre but wet snow/slush can approach 1 ton per cubic metre and is also much more difficult to sweep.
"Heathrow airport's runway(s) covered to a depth of 2cm (0.8 inches) of wet snow … will require the removal of almost 5,300 tonnes of snow … the area of the airfield from which snow must be removed to facilitate aircraft operations is 1,688,460sq/m (417 acres)."
Faced with more than 12,000 tons of snow, Heathrow's plans were hopelessly inadequate.
Last November, Heathrow had boasted that it had been "working for months to ensure the UK's hub airport would once again be prepared for the onset of winter".
The press release boasted of "an extra half million pounds of investment", "specialist teams (of) 50 highly trained staff" and "more than 60 hi-tech vehicles".
It added: "While London may have run out of grit last winter, Heathrow is determined that it doesn't run out of the highly concentrated de-icing fluid it uses on the runways". Heathrow boasted it had storage for 500,000 litres – almost 500 tons – of de-icer.
It was not prepared last week to say how much glycol de-icer it had in its storage tanks when the snow hit. What should have happened is that, with snow forecast, de-icing vehicles should have been dispatched to spray every inch of the airfield.
The chemical works better before ice forms and protects the runway from damage caused by ice crystals building up in its structure.
With snow falling the snow sweepers take over, clearing the runway of snow and ice.
What is clear, is that by Saturday afternoon managers were desperately calling its two glycol suppliers attempting to secure further stocks.
Glycol is imported from Europe. Heathrow's main supplier, the Seattle-based chemical distribution company Univar, refused to discuss the Heathrow situation but said it was meeting "dramatically increased demand" and had "sent staff to work with BAA (to) provide additional technical support".
A second supplier, Wakefield-based Brotherton, is understood to have also been asked for emergency supplies and has sent the airport an additional
28 tons since last weekend.
There are also questions about whether Heathrow could have remained open despite having snow on the runways. Britain, unlike countries more used to snow, has operated a "back to blacktop" policy requiring all snow and ice to be cleared off runways and other manoeuvring areas before flights can go ahead.
But in October, the Civil Aviation Authority issued a notice relaxing these rules. It said: "Although this is seen as the best scenario, there may be circumstances where it is better to keep the runway open."
This option was rejected by the airport operators.
Last night a spokesman for Heathrow said: "These procedures were considered but given the shifting conditions we faced on the day, we could not have operated safely and that is our overriding priority."
The spokesman said Heathrow had been "told to expect snowfall in varying amounts on Saturday" and "de-icing fluid was laid on the airfield one hour before it snowed. "The issue was not de-icer," he said. "It is untrue that we have run out of de-icer or failed to order enough.
"On Saturday Heathrow received between 5 to 6 inches of snow over a very quick period of time. De-icer is only effective on snow of approximately one-inch thick, after this snow needs to be physically cleared.
"To do this it is necessary to close the airport as it would be very unsafe to have people and snow clearing machinery at work while aircraft are landing and taking off. It would be very unsafe for aircraft to manoeuvre on snow and ice.
"We have accepted that we need to review the equipment and machinery in place to enable us to deal with the extreme weather conditions experienced on Saturday more effectively."
Last week BAA said it would make £10 million available to buy new snow clearing vehicles and launch an inquiry into what went wrong in the pre-Christmas snowstorm.